Why the future of the fashion industry depends on selling less and supporting 1.5C lifestyles?

How fashion companies need to address the climate crisis — sell less? Sell better? The answer is that they need to do both, with an emphasis on the former to support a sustainable planet. However, fashion companies prefer the latter as they have a hard time dropping the growth mindset. Charting a course toward ‘selling better + less’ demands a systematic approach, starting with driving a transition to 1.5C lifestyles.

Raz Godelnik
10 min readMar 12, 2024
Credit: Chloé Dislaire

Could you limit yourself to buying only five new clothing items a year? For some, it may be easier than for others, but in general, this is quite a challenging task when you consider that in 2018, the average American, for example, purchased 68 items of clothing.

And yet, this level of change is approximately what we need to see in our lifestyles, particularly in rich countries, if we want to have any chance to limit global warming to 1.5C. As the authors of the 2022 report “Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable: Resizing Fashion for a Fair Consumption Space” (published by Hot or Cool) wrote:

“If no other actions are implemented, such as repairing/mending, washing at lower temperatures, or buying second-hand, purchases of new garments should be limited to an average 5 items per year for achieving consumption levels in line with the 1.5-degree target.”

In CO2 terms, the report suggests that “we need to aim for a per capita fashion consumption footprint target of 128.7 kg of CO₂e by 2030 to comply with the 1.5-degree aspirational target of the Paris Agreement.” This goal requires a reduction of “60% on average by 2030 among the G20 high-income countries,” according to the report.

No matter how you look at it, the gap between the current levels of fashion consumption and the needed ones in high-income countries requires a complete revamp in the way we consume fashion. It entails a systematic transformation that goes far beyond what we see now. However, there is a key barrier to achieving this transformation: Fashion companies.

The dominant logic in fashion: Profit, growth, and eco-efficiencies

Don’t get me wrong — fashion companies are worried about the climate crisis and take some action about it, but for them, the key priority remains maximizing growth and profits rather than addressing the climate crisis. As we can learn from McKinsey and BoF’s report “State of the Fashion 2024”, these maximization efforts focus on traditional strategies of creating more efficiencies to reduce costs and fine-tuning pricing and promotions strategies to increase sales (“In 2024, 71 percent of surveyed executives said they will focus on increasing sales, compared to 63 percent the previous year”).

This report provides interesting insights into the current mindset of the fashion industry concerning the necessary response to the climate crisis. While the industry acknowledges the critical impacts of the climate crisis, the response leans more toward supply chain and operational activities:

“With fashion still responsible for between 3 percent and 8 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, a mix of short and long-term strategies can help companies address the climate challenge. Companies, for example, may look to de-risking the value chain and revamping structural and operational legacies, or doubling down on sustainability.”

This approach has not been working very well for fashion companies so far. Remake’s 2024 Fashion Accountability Report, which rated 52 large fashion companies, makes it clear that “the main driver of fashion’s still increasing environmental impact is the growing volume of production.” It suggests that most companies analyzed have made insufficient progress in addressing climate concerns. An analysis by Stand.earth in 2023 of 43 fashion companies’ climate action described an industry with numerous commitments but limited progress toward supply chain decarbonization. The average grade for most companies was around D (between D- to D+), and the highest grade given was B- (interestingly, it’s H&M).

The slow and insufficient progress of fashion companies on climate is a clear example of what I describe in my book “Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis” as sustainability-as-usual: Efforts to make businesses more sustainable are the norm, yet they remain constrained by the shareholder capitalism mental model and thus are insufficient. This approach is also evident in how McKinsey and BoF view the situation, calling companies to “double down on sustainability,” or in other words, to do more eco-efficiencies. While not surprising given McKinsey’s advocacy for ‘green growth’ transformation, the question arises: Is this the right remedy?

Credit: Quinn Comendant

Sell better or sell less? We need both.

So, what needs to be done to achieve a fashion consumption footprint that aligns with the 1.5C target? The “Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable “ report looks into five ways to do it: Reducing purchases of new garments, increasing use-time, reducing washing and drying, buying second-hand and responsibly disposing. According to its findings, “the two solutions with large emission reduction potential are reducing purchases of new garments and increasing use-time. Responsibly disposing, reducing washing and drying, and buying second-hand showed more limited reduction potentials.”

I would like to offer a somewhat different framing into the same challenge, considering it from the companies’ point of view. My suggestion is that there are two key strategies for fashion companies to align themselves with the 1.5C target — sell better and sell less.

Selling better — the concept of selling better is best articulated by the EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles. Its 2030 vision is that “all textile products placed on the EU market are durable, repairable and recyclable, to a great extent made of recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances, produced in respect of social rights and the environment.”

Selling better, in essence, is about better design — a circular-based design approach, which allows “for textiles to make them last longer, easier to repair and recycle, as well as requirements on minimum recycled content.” At its core, it is about utilizing better materials and practices from an environmental and societal standpoint through the application of circular strategies to ensure garments can last longer, be used more, and have a far smaller footprint.

Selling less — this concept goes beyond the need to reduce overproduction to slowing and reducing the production of new garments as a whole. It is about moving the industry away from a growth mindset because, as Sarah Kent points out, “we cannot consume our way out of the climate crisis; continuing to sell rising volumes of new products is incompatible with sustainability.”

Reducing the production of new garments means developing new ways to meet people’s needs that do not involve the production of new garments and thus allow companies to not only reduce or even eliminate overproduction but also reduce their production volumes. This includes, as the Remake’s report suggests, “the repair and upcycling; rental; and resale services to replace the production of new goods.” At the same time, it should be clear that rental, selling second-hand, and other potential degrowth business models should aim to replace the production of new garments, not complement them.

The research is crystal clear that both strategies should be implemented, with an emphasis on selling/buying less. However, so far, companies predominantly channel their efforts into selling (producing) better. We can see it at the operational level — “circular business models are still in their infancy” according to McKinsey and BoF’s report, and the Remake’s report adds that “circularity accounts for about 3.5% of the total fashion market, and is worth $73 billion.” Beyond that, there is the strategic level — no fashion company has decided yet to shift gears and reduce production volumes.

Why is this the case? There are two main reasons. One is purely economic. As the Remake’s report points out: “It is simply more profitable, in the current system, to overproduce and trash than to reduce production to reasonable levels.” The second is that selling better is within companies’ comfort zone and selling less isn’t. As Garcia-Ortega et al. write: “…companies tend first to embrace strategies with less impact on their traditional modus operandi”.

In all fairness, selling less is indeed considerably more challenging. While ‘selling better’ poses operational and financial challenges (as exemplified by the recent case of Renewcell filing for bankruptcy), ‘selling less’ introduces additional hurdles, including cultural barriers. Opting to sell less signifies a radical shift in a company’s psyche, requiring organizations whose success relied on selling more to reinvent themselves and find ways to thrive by selling less. The pathway to achieving similar levels of profits through ‘selling less’ remains unclear and is generally perceived as quite risky. Perhaps this uncertainty is why no large fashion company has earnestly attempted it.

So where do we go from here?

The fashion industry has two options now: 1) Continuing with its focus on selling better. 2) Combining selling better with selling less, with an emphasis on the latter.

Moving forward with the first option means that companies can continue with the current pathway, which is mostly focusing on accelerating circular design efforts and enhancing eco-efficiencies. It means that while companies will continue to focus on product and process innovations, the overall modus operandi of their business won’t undergo significant transformation. As a result, we are likely to see some improvement, but not anywhere near the 1.5C target and very likely not even close to the 2C target.

Proceeding with the second option would be more complex, no doubt about it. Companies will need to transform their modus operandi, redesign their business models, and figure out new ways to ensure their financial viability. The upside? This option offers a chance to meet the 1.5C target or at least the 2C target.

Assuming we want to live in a world that does not warm beyond 1.5C or 2C, we probably see the second option as preferable. The question then is how do we make it happen? There are a couple of strategies to consider:

The first strategy is regulation, which is crucial but still more focused on the supply side. As McKinsey and BoF’s report points out: “…fashion supply chains could be under increased scrutiny amid incoming regulations on several fronts.” As such, regulation is likely to drive ‘selling better’ more than ‘selling less’. In other words, regulation is a necessary but not sufficient strategy to achieve a pathway of selling better + less.

The second strategy is pressuring companies to sell less. This strategy is unlikely to achieve effective results given that it is unreasonable to expect that companies will operate in a way that will get them punished by the markets as long as the system is optimized around growth. Companies can, of course, grow their profits while reducing production, but it is a very complex maneuver that most companies won’t be interested in assuming, especially as long as they can continue focusing on ‘selling better,’ which is far less challenging for them. It is also fair to assume that it is unlikely to succeed if it is handled as a siloed intervention that is not part of a greater cultural shift.

The third strategy involves encouraging companies to support a shift to 1.5C lifestyles. This approach is more subtle, suggesting that companies would support a broader lifestyle shift, which, in turn, will ease the adoption of the ‘selling less’ option. The idea is for companies to think more holistically and systematically about the changes people need to go through to adopt a new ‘buying less’ mentality, and it won’t work unless a mindset shift on the demand side takes place.

In essence, this is a system hack, reflecting the need for a biological rather than a mechanical approach to corporate sustainability. It implies that companies should embrace an approach based on indirect interventions. As BCG’s Faeste, Reeves, and Whitaker write: “To address a complex task…direct interventions (such as mandating individual behaviors) are unlikely to bring about the required change. Indirect interventions often prove to be more effective because they touch the deeper, more persistent drivers of behavior.”

Why and how would companies support a shift to 1.5C lifestyles?

Let’s start with the ‘why’ question — why would companies be interested in supporting this shift in the first place? Indeed, not all companies may be interested in it, so some would likely need stronger encouragement than others. However, I believe that certain fashion companies will probably be interested in such a shift for three main reasons:

First, the ‘selling better only’ pathway is likely to become less defensible as its inability to achieve desirable results becomes clearer. Second, I assume that some leaders in the industry understand the need to sell less but don’t know how to do it without facing punishment from the markets. This strategy will allow them to ground their decisions in the changing nature of their customers’ preferences. Third, it offers fashion companies a more effective way to use their agency to ensure they do not lose their social license to operate.

The ‘how’ question may be even more critical because a clear understanding of how fashion companies might support the shift to 1.5C lifestyles may offer more companies an incentive to join the ride. I have been working on this question for some time and plan to share my thoughts at several upcoming events, including the Sustainable Fashion Forum conference in April and a workshop with PwC’s Sustainable Innovation team in Berlin in June. Additionally, I am currently writing a paper on this topic, so stay tuned!

Raz Godelnik is an Associate Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School. He is the author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, July 2021). You are welcome to follow me on LinkedIn.



Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach